HOUSTON -- "I was sort of interested in coming full circle with the project," explained Anne Runolfsson, who appeared in the starring role(s) in Victor/Victoria on Broadway more than 100 times, going on for all matinees and for every performance missed by Julie Andrews, Liza Minnelli, and Raquel Welch. Now Runolfsson has the gender-bender all to herself in the first post-Broadway mounting of the show (book by Blake Edwards, music by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and additional music by Frank Wildhorn). Produced by Theatre Under The Stars in Houston, it opened May 14; the run concludes May 30.
"When Raquel came in, I started playing the character as an American. This opened a whole new idea of who Victoria might be. I found this door into other compartments of her personality. Because with Julie I played Brit." Runolfsson classified her American Victoria as feistier than her English version; her newer take on the part(s) will incorporate, Runolfsson said, her own sense of gung-ho excitement, diving into splashy things. "As standby for Julie I had such a role model," Runolfsson explained, still in awe of the musical theater legend. "I needed to stay true to what she was doing. She played Victoria like she did in the  movie: a woman at the end of her rope, soft-spoken but with a vitality dying to burst out." Now Runolfsson can create her own character(s); the least of the difference: her Victor/Victoria will be some 30 years younger than Andrews'.
Runolfsson only got to play her American Victor/Victoria for one performance during Welch's tenure. This is part of her enthusiasm to return to a show far from the stellar confines of the Great White Way. "And it's still fun. I like to work. I like to perform. There have been times when I haven't felt so good about my work, about myself as a performer. But for a while now I have been very positive. And I have great time with this project." What's more, Runolfsson added, it's not often that musical theater actors get offered leads, regardless of the venue.
Though that's not really relevant in Runolfsson's case. She originated the role of Roxane in Cyrano, the Musical, she was the first Lily in the first national tour of The Secret Garden, and she played Fantine in the first national tour of Les Miserables. Off-Broadway she created the roles of Suzy/Sarah in Jack's Holiday and Tommy in Cather County, both at Playwrights Horizons. And among her many prestigious singing engagements and exclusive cabaret gigs, Runolfsson can be heard everyday nationwide singing the "Rosie O'Donnell Show" jingle.
A number of the original Broadway participants reunite with Runolfsson at Theatre Under The Stars. Michael Nouri is once again King Marchan, the dashing gangster. Tara O'Brien, who made her Broadway debut as the Street Singer and moved into the role of Norma, King's jealous tootsie, returns as the possessive tart. And Mark S. Hoebee, who assisted director Edwards in New York, directs. Anthony Newly was supposed to have been Carroll "Toddy" Todd, but the multi-talented creator of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off is undergoing cancer treatment. He's been replaced by Barry Williams, big brother Greg on TV's The Brady Bunch. Though not widely known as such, Williams is a musical theater veteran, having starred in such regional productions as They're Playing Our Song, Oklahoma!, I Do! I Do!, The Music Man, and Man of La Mancha. Early in his career he appeared on Broadway in the title role of Pippin, and most recently he was in the first national touring company of City of Angels. Williams is remembered by Theatre Under The Stars for his 1981 star turn in Grease.
For Theatre Under The Stars, Runolfsson and company are only rehearsing Victor/Victoria for two weeks. While this preparation might seem scant, "We're starting with a lot of information," Runolfsson countered. "When we began on Broadway, we were adapting a movie; there were a lot of pieces missing. Here in Houston we have a secure basis."
A solid footing has allowed for fine-tuning, Runolfsson said. "We have been able to reevaluate scenes, add nuances." The blocking has remained mostly the same, but the choreography is completely different; Rob Marshall, the original, is out, and Dan Mojica, currently represented by Disney's Beauty and the Beast, is in. "This is the hardest part for me," Runolfsson revealed. "Rob's dancing is ingrained in me." The Act Two opener has changed: "Louis Says" has been replaced by "Attitude," which was last seen in the pre-Broadway out-of-town tryout in Minneapolis.
Most of all, with Runolfsson and Williams, the show has gotten younger. She and Williams had to discover a less paternalistic relationship between Victoria and Toddy than the character had with Tony Roberts as Toddy on Broadway.
Since the 1996 - 1997 season, TUTS had been promising that Andrews would reprise her Victor/Victoria role(s) in an exclusive production for the Houston troupe and its sister organization, Fifth Avenue Musical Theatre Company in Seattle. After numerous postponements, which cost much in credibility as well as economics, Andrews finally bowed out of her commitment last month, reportedly due to complications from throat surgery. Enter Runolfsson
Victor/Victoria, presented by Theatre Under The Stars, plays the Music Hall May 10 - 30. For tickets, $22.50 - $69.50, call (800) 678-5440.